UFOs Were Born Among America’s Cold War Fears
The U.S. Senate is currently awaiting an official report detailing everything the government knows about unidentified flying objects (UFOs) and unidentified aerial phenomena (UAPs). The report is the result of a provision in the $2.3 trillion 2020 appropriations bill that provided coronavirus relief to Americans and avoided a government shutdown. It is expected, among other things, to address the now infamous Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP), made famous by reporting in late 2017.
The current UFO-mania centers on a series of sightings made by U.S. Navy pilots or appearing on their sensors in 2004, 2014, and 2015, the video and reports of which were leaked by former U.S. Defense Department official Luis Elizondo. Elizondo’s alleged credibility derives from his claim to have served as director of AATIP. He described the program as “understandably overstretched” and without “the resources that the mounting evidence deserved.” His effort to ignite interest in un- or underreported military sightings has been bolstered by the creation of To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science (TTSA), a research institute co-founded by UFO true believer and former Blink-182 frontman Tom DeLonge, and former CIA official Jim Semivan. Elizondo now works with TTSA in the company of another former U.S. intelligence official, Christopher Mellon. The credentials of both the Navy pilots and the former government officials involved in TTSA have kept these sightings, and the controversy around them, in the public eye for more than three years.
Amid the breathless media reporting and calls for transparency, accountability, and the American people’s “right to know,” it is easy to get caught up in the excitement and mystery. Why are the Pentagon and the respective branches of the U.S. military investigating UFO/UAP sightings? Will we finally receive confirmation that aliens are real and visiting us? Or that we’re being surveilled by some advanced aerial Big Brother technology? What is the government hiding from us?
Yet while Elizondo’s 2017 leaks may have come as a revelation to some, the U.S. military complex has been investigating reports of strange aerial phenomena for almost 75 years. Understanding UFOs and UAPs as historically embedded in airborne global war and U.S. national security concerns explains why they are an object of investigation and inquiry, why those investigations continue, and why sightings and witnesses maintain a persistent power to keep the U.S. public engaged and questioning—as it has several times in the past.
U.S. military involvement with the “UFO question” (What are they? Where do they come from?) dates back to the summer of 1947 and the birth of the modern UFO. We can track the modern UFO or “flying saucer” to the pilot and UFO godfather Kenneth Arnold’s ur-sighting in late June 1947. While assisting in a search for a missing military transport plane over the Cascade Mountains in Washington state, Arnold reported seeing nine discrete flying objects zipping about the mountain peaks. He described them as silvery or metallic, fast, and appearing to be intelligently controlled. Arnold made note of the weather, the time, and used objects in his cockpit to estimate size and speed. When he landed, he told his colleagues. Then he told the press.
Arnold’s sighting was followed by a series of copycat sightings. The sightings were first localized in the Pacific Northwest but quickly spread across the continental United States and then around the world. The U.S. Air Force, then the U.S. Army Air Forces, took serious interest in the sightings, given the descriptions it was receiving—that these were aerial technology, metallic, intelligently controlled, and terrestrial.
That Arnold’s sighting takes place and receives the attention it does is no mere fluke of history but rather a deeply contingent event that hinges on its postwar moment. The modern UFO brought together and embodied three specific characteristics of the tensions of 1947.
First, the flying saucers of 1947 represented the technoscientific developments of World War II taken to the extreme. The world wars, and the second in particular, had led to unprecedented developments and progress in the technology and science of warfare. Major breakthroughs were made in submarine technology, aerial technology (manned and unmanned), cybernetic command-control technologies, computing technologies, medical technologies, surveillance and sensor technology, and weapons technology. The appearance of strange, and potentially deadly, objects in the skies was a resonant idea in the wake of the V2 rocket attacks on London and the unleashing of the atomic bomb. These flying disks, many believed, could just be the next step in bomber technology.
1947 was also a pivotal year in the development of the Cold War. Though once allies, the spring of 1947 saw the American-Soviet friendship collapse, articulated in the Truman Doctrine of March 1947, which presented communism as a threat to the American way of life and pressed the need to contain that threat geopolitically. Americans were faced with, as they saw it, a new and alien challenger.
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